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Silence in the breakout room

Last week, I had an intriguing conversation in the breakout room of the Japan Intercultural Institute’s Learning Circle. Together with international colleagues, we were discussing how to better enable our participants in online intercultural trainings to learn and to connect with each other. My colleague from Japan mentioned that her biggest challenge was the silences in breakout rooms. I was surprised. That was a phenomenon I do not know from my Western nor my international mixed groups. On the contrary, participants almost always want to exchange more with each other in the small discussion groups and less in plenary. Interaction between peers almost naturally guarantees learning.

Breaking the ice

How different with my Japanese colleague. When she introduced breakout rooms during a webinar and visited them virtually, she often found complete silence: “I need to join, otherwise people stay quiet”. Beforehand, she explained step by step the task to be discussed in small groups, but an extra stimulus by her presence was needed. She had to get the discussion going in each group because participants would not break the ice themselves and would not speak out. After all, whoever spoke first certainly stood out and would feel embarrassed. And as she explained “They are very afraid of making mistakes in front of someone they don’t know well. It is better for them to remain silent if they anticipate that they might make a mistake”. Her role was: “to make sure that participants know it is OK to make mistakes, there is no reason why they should be embarrassed, it is OK to talk in breakout rooms and make friends”.

Random breakout rooms

Silence in the breakout rooms was also a well-known fact for my Indian colleague and presented a huge challenge. Especially with randomly assigned groups, she noticed a complete and uncomfortable silence. Speaking to strangers with whom you have ended up in an online room ‘just like that’ is difficult. Her solution was to assign roles to all participants in advance, but even then it was complex to create an inclusive learning environment. She concluded that often the most fruitful dialogue was conducted in the plenary webinar anyway.

Communication is culture

Sharing these observations around silence was an insightful experience for me and a wonderful illustration of the well-known motto ‘culture is communication and communication is culture’. In this digital age where we work online all over the world, we share the same webinar tools, but use them in our own cultural way. When we think of effective intercultural communication, we usually think of verbal communication (rate of speech, alternation of turns and use of language), but we often forget the use of silences as a powerful form of non-verbal communication.

Positive or negative connotation of silence

Interculturally, silence has different connotations. Is silence mainly experienced as negative or positive? Silences and pauses can have many meanings, such as agreement, praise, respect but also lack of agreement or protest. In most Western cultures, silence is experienced more negatively. Silence in communication is often interpreted as indifference, shame, disagreement. Silence is a form that we can classify under ‘high context communication’ (indirect and implicit communication). People who have grown up with the cultural codes of ‘low context communication’ (direct and explicit communication) easily miss the information that is packaged in gestures, the use of space and the use of pauses and silence. For high context speakers talking too much could be seen as a sign of shallowness or lack of confidence. Because of these differences, silence can easily become a source of intercultural miscommunication.

Hierarchy and face

An Arabic proverb says: ‘You are master of the words you have kept inside and slave to the words you have let out of your mouth’. Controlling what you say is of utmost importance. You don’t know who your information will end up with and what could happen to it. In addition, from the perspective of hierarchy, it is logical for those lower down in the hierarchy or younger in age to remain silent or only speak when they are given a turn by someone higher up, such as the trainer in the example above. In a Japanese meeting, for example, the senior person often speaks last after hearing others’ opinions, and may speak very little. In addition, silence can play the role of not upsetting yourself and others; avoiding loss of face and keeping face with others. Finally, silence provides space to reflect on what has just been said, to reflect on a proposal, to put your thoughts in order so that you can then express yourself clearly. ‘Silence is also speech’, as an African proverb says. Even in a breakout room.

A special thanks to Ishita Ray and Kyoko Suzuki


Further reading:

Ikuko Nakane (2007) Silence in Intercultural Communication

Yuan Yuan Quan (2015) Analysis of Silence in intercultural Communication.

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